As a 14-year-old working on the family’s dairy farm in the late 1950s, Gavan was thrilled to be invited by the local Returned Services League (RSL) and Legacy group to go on a trip to Sydney. ‘I can recall trips and that before my parents bought the farm’, Gavan said. ‘But there’d been no holidays since I was about nine so I’d really been looking forward to having a holiday.’
With about 30 others, Gavan caught an overnight train to Sydney where the boys were to be billeted out to families and spend three weeks going on excursions. On the way to Sydney, boys were split up into pairs and allocated a cabin to sleep in. Shortly after they’d been told to prepare for bed, one of the camp supervisors, PK Nelson, came into the cabin Gavan was sharing with another boy. Nelson told them there’d been a mix-up with the bookings and that he’d need to share their cabin and sleep in the lower bunk with Gavan.
Gavan told the Commissioner he felt very uncomfortable with the situation but didn’t think he had much choice. He was trying to go to sleep when Nelson suddenly moved across and pushed up against him.
‘I asked him why he was doing that. He just reached down and started fondling me. I tried to make him stop, but I couldn’t do that either. I kept telling him to stop and he just pushed up harder and kept on fondling me and I just couldn’t help it, I got aroused.’
Nelson’s sexual assault worsened until ‘after a while he stopped’. Gavan said he then found himself against the wall of the bed and wanted just ‘to get out of there and go somewhere else’.
The other boy in the cabin didn’t wake during the assault and in the morning, the boys arrived in Sydney. The next three weeks remained a blur in Gavan’s memory apart from one incident while they were staying in the Blue Mountains when Nelson again tried to assault him. Using the same pretext – that there’d been a mix-up in the bookings – Nelson organised for a shared room, but Gavan told him that he’d scream if he tried anything. After a few attempts, Nelson left Gavan alone.
During the trip and later back home Gavan became very withdrawn. He never spoke of the abuse. ‘I couldn’t talk to my parents. Dad was fairly authoritarian. Mum cared for us and loved us a lot. There was one day when I tried to tell her, but I just couldn’t. So I just carried on.’
Gavan finished his schooling and found a professional job but said that unlike his brothers he’d always felt worthless. He married and had three children and though he tried to put the abuse behind him, memory flashbacks and depression stayed with him throughout his life. He remained close to his children and grandchildren, but his marriage eventually broke down.
Gavan thought he probably wasn’t the only person abused by Nelson, and as an adult he’d tried to find out who Nelson actually was. ‘He doesn’t appear on any of the rolls at the Australian War Memorial and I think maybe he was a person who saw either the RSL or most likely Legacy, as a means of accessing boys when they were vulnerable, away from their parents, under his care and a long way from home.’
At one stage Gavan bought a gun with the plan of tracking Nelson down to ‘put a bullet through his guts’. Then by chance he was listening to the radio when he heard a broadcast announcing Nelson’s death. ‘They praised him for all the good work he’d done and I was physically sick’, Gavan said.
In the late 1980s, Gavan met Louise and they’d been together ever since. The sudden death of a family member in the late 1990s led to Gavan seeing a psychologist and talking about the abuse. Louise accompanied Gavan to the Royal Commission and said his disclosure to her ‘explained a lot about his manner’, and why he would sometimes ‘just close down’.
‘It just put the puzzle together’, she said.
Gavan also told his sons and was surprised by their lack of reaction. It wasn’t that they didn’t care, Louise said; rather, they were of a generation that had grown up being able to talk about child sexual abuse more openly.
‘As you grow up you get a better understanding of these things’, Gavan said. ‘But at 14, I wasn’t even aware of people like that. And my parents hadn’t said anything about it and I was just totally unprepared for what happened on the train. But the psychologist said that I was strong enough that when he tried again I was able to resist.’
He thought Legacy did ‘a fantastic job’ but as an organisation thought it needed better vetting of volunteers so that children were safe. ‘I think that Legacy or the RSL needs to be made aware that they’ve probably got paedophiles amongst their people’, Gavan said. ‘They need to, maybe they already have, systems in place that prevent those instances happening again. …
‘I don’t have any ill-feeling towards Legacy who organised the thing. Both my parents were in the armed forces. … I have the greatest respect for Legacy and the armed services.’